A Bargain’s Hidden Cost
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
This is the first of a three part series on the economics of fair trade. From the standpoint, that, yeah we all want to make ethical buying choices, but how do we do that? And maybe less lofty yet valid is the question, can we afford it?
Let’s not lie. We all like bargains. Who wants to pay more than he or she has to for something? But let’s come at our bargains from a holistic perspective. The cost of an item goes well beyond the dollars and cents you lay down at the register.
As an example, let’s consider the hidden cost of bargain coffee.
The human cost: I’m not saying the following applies in all cases, yet it’s true in much of the large scale coffee operations: workers are paid sweatshop wages and toil under abysmal working conditions. Take Guatemala, pickers have to pick a 100pound quota in order to get the minimum wage of less than $3/day. Half of them don’t receive this minimum wage despite working all day long. So what do they do? They bring their kids with them, that’s what. Who needs education when you have to eat? There’s no labor protection for these youngsters because no one employs them officially. And health care is not part of the workers’ “compensation package” as it were, even though it’s legally mandated in Guatemala.
The environmental cost: Way back in the way back (before the 1970’s so-called Green Revolution) coffee was grown, as it had been in Africa for centuries, as an understory crop beneath diverse shade trees that provided habitat for a wide variety of wildlife including birds, butterflies, insects, and animals. Traditional coffee farmers composted coffee pulp, rotated crops and didn’t apply expensive chemicals and fertilizers. They kept the land, and the animals, insects and birds that inhabited the land, healthy and diverse. They didn’t limit themselves to coffee but interspersed it with other cash crops like banana and nut trees which provided additional food security and income. During the Green Revolution this started to change. The US Agency for International Development championed “technified agriculture” and they along with other groups gave $80 million dollars for plantations in Central America to replace traditional shade grown farming techniques with “sun cultivation” techniques in order to increase yields. Vast forests, over 1.1 MILLION hectares, were wiped out, along with their inherent biodiversity. “Sun cultivated” coffee means you cut down the trees; you only grown one crop; you put fertilizers and pesticides down. You basically strip your land of all nutrients and the environment of pest and predator alike. The whole ecosystem is broken down to produce a lot of cheap coffee. The Smithsonian Institute has identified industrial coffee production as one of the major threats to songbirds in the hemisphere due to deforestation. The birds no longer have a habitat in which to live. Coffee pulp is often dumped into streams, which joins the run-off from fertilizers, and the water sources are severely compromised. Expensive stuff right there. So much for a bargain.
Conversely, about 85% of the coffee which earns the Fair Trade certification is both shade grown and organic. Fair trade supports small farmers. Small farmers, rather than faceless corporations, are the best stewards of the land, with the highest interest in living in and passing on land with healthy soil, free from harmful pesticides, to their children. Paying farmers a fair wage with added incentives for ecological practices is the best way to encourage sustainable farming.
So come on! Don’t feed your precious dollars to a system which perpetuates such abuses. It’s time to see that mass consumerism, which seeks out only the lowest bottom line, is stripping our land of bio-diversity and our people of a living wage. And that cost is far greater in the long run, and more devastating to all our wallets, than the few extra dollars a month we may lay out when we turn our back on “bargains” like cheap coffee.